THE Royal Blackburn and Burnley General hospitals have been criticised for their use of controversial zero-hours contracts, which have increased nearly five-fold in the last three years.

East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust (ELHT) had 531 staff on zero-hours in 2013, which was up from 110 in 2010.

The contracts, which have been heavily criticised by unions, mean employees work only as and when they are needed, often at short notice, and are paid only for the hours they work.

Employers argue they offer vital flexibility and the potential to make cost savings.

Russ McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said: “I don’t like these contracts.

“They’re not good for the hospital and it’s not good for patients.

“Patients need to have confidence that the people treating them are being treated fairly themselves.

“Morale is at an all-time low and staff are trying very hard to turn things around, but it’s very much an uphill struggle.

“And if you’re not able to offer staff excellent terms and conditions, you won’t get the best people.

“This shows they still need to take on more permanent staff.”

Lynn Collins, regional secretary of the Trade Union Congress, said: “The figures we have seen here are disgraceful. Hundreds more workers, in just one area of East Lancashire, face the insecurity of not knowing how many hours they will get and how much money they will have to live on from week to week.

Steve Flanagan , regional director for the Royal College of Nursing, said: “Any flexibility in an employment contract must go both ways and employees must not be locked into contracts which leave them unsure of how much they will earn in any given week without having the flexibility to earn more if they need to.”

There were 331 staff on zero hours at ELHT in 2012 and 250 in 2011.

ELHT did not respond in time for our deadline, although a number of the trust’s zero hours workers are thought to be temporary staff such as ‘bank’ nurses, who might hold a permanent contract, but do extra work on a zero-hours basis.